Profoundly-deaf teenager Jodie Ounsley has never let her disability get in the way of her love of sport.
This summer the Shelley College student will compete as a sprinter in the 2017 Deaflympics in Turkey, train with the North of England and Yorkshire under 18s rugby union teams and prepare to join an elite sports programme at Loughborough College. She’ll also be taking her GCSEs.
It’s going to be a busy time, but 16-year-old Jodie, from Dewsbury, is used to being busy. Since early childhood she’s been immersed in everything from Brazilian jiu jitsu (of which she is a gold medallist), and other martial arts, to competitive running with the Longwood Harriers. It was only by chance that she became a rugby player, but it’s proved to be the sport that could one day see her competing at the Olympics.
Jodie, who was fitted with a cochlear implant at the age of just 14 months, comes from a sporting family. Her dad Phil, a police inspector, is a keen exponent of jiu jitsu, karate and judo; brother Jack, 10, plays rugby league and mum Jo, who runs a luxury cat hotel, is a keep fit enthusiast. An average week in the Ounsley household involves a lot of driving around to training sessions and matches.
Jodie and Phil have also competed regularly in the West Yorkshire-based World Coal Carrying Championships, adding the endurance ‘sport’ to her list of achievements. She’s a four-time junior winner of the race and has countless other medals from a wide range of sporting events.
Having a disability, she says, has made her more determined to succeed, but she believes that sport is an essential part of her life and would have been even if she had hearing. She’s fiercely competitive on the rugby field and doesn’t fear the bumps and bruises of the contact sport. “I don’t think about it,” says Jodie, “I never feel the bruises at the time, I’m just enjoying playing.”
As Phil says: “She was always really active. When she was a toddler she saw me training for the coal carrying championships, picked up a bag of carrots and ran around the kitchen table with it on her back. I knew then that she was going to be sporty.”
But her early life was affected by the hearing loss that became apparent soon after birth, and in order to ‘catch up’ with other children of the same age she attended pre-school sessions at the Elizabeth Foundation in Bradford. Phil and Jo also took her to the John Tracy clinic in Los Angeles (founded by the wife of actor Spender Tracy), which offers training to the parents of children with hearing loss.
They pushed for Jodie to have the cochlear implant as early as possible and the family doesn’t use sign language. Phil explains: “A lot of the things you learn are learned through speech and language, from hearing things repeated. We decided early on we wanted to go down the speech and language route. A hearing aid magnifies what hearing you have, but Jodie was profoundly deaf so she needed the implant.”
Today, the only outward sign of Jodie’s hearing problem is the small processor she wears above her right ear that also carries the battery for her implant. To protect the processor she wears a helmet when playing rugby.
Jodie will compete in the Deaflympics adult 100m and 200m events for Team GB. She was recently given an award of £1,740 from building company Taylor Wimpey Yorkshire to cover the costs of kit, accommodation and flights to Turkey in July. (The company also sponsors Sandal Girls Rugby Union Football Club, of which Jodie is a team member). Dad Phil is planning to accompany her as a supportive parent and also in the role of head welfare and security officer for the games in Samsun on the north coast of Turkey.
In September Jodie is off to study sports science and play rugby at Loughborough College, which she and Phil see as a possible step towards a career in professional sport. But it’s only a quirk of fate that led her to taking up rugby at all. As a young teenager, Jodie developed Osgood Schlatter disease, a painful knee condition that affects the tendons from the kneecap to the shin bone. It’s a common cause of knee pain in growing adolescents and usually resolves. Advised to rest from running, Jodie gradually recovered and back in October 2015 decided to play rugby. Within months, playing wing or centre, she became the club’s top try-scorer; she was selected for Yorkshire and is now a member of the England U 18s academy.
Going away from home at 16 is another challenge the young sportswoman plans to embrace. As she says: “I was scared about it at first but I know quite a lot of the people who will be there. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I’m looking forward to it I’ll be doing a B Tech in sport as well as playing rugby.”
And, as Phil adds: “She will be living like a professional athlete and it opens up opportunities for her. She can make a living out of rugby union now, whereas she couldn’t have five years ago. It’s an Olympic sport.”
What’s more, Jodie will be blazing a trail for other deaf athletes and sportswomen. She says: “I have worked very hard over the last few years to achieve my dreams and I hope that my journey inspires other disabled women in sport.”